Young farmers grow local food movement in the valley and beyond

Oct 3, 2016

Merrill with her pet cow, Babe. She nursed him back to health when he was born very sick. He now acts as the farm's tour guide.
Credit Matt Ferro

The younger generation is making strides to grow the local food movement in the valley while also getting involved on a national level to support farmers’ rights. Aspen Public Radio’s Barbara Platts visited several area farms, and gives us this report.

I’m walking around Merrill’s Family Farm on Cedar Ridge Ranch, just outside of Carbondale in Missouri Heights. I’m joined by the namesake of the property, Merrill Johnson. She’s showing me the vegetable gardens, the compost stock operation, the cows, the horses and some rather vocal piglets.

“So this is Thelma and Louise...our two little girls,” Merrill said.

This 67-acre farm is one of many in the Roaring Fork Valley working to grow sustainable agriculture. The effort began five years ago when Merrill started turning horse manure into biodynamic compost. The latest installation on the ranch are two greenhouses for vegetable gardens, which were created this past spring.

“I wanted to support other farmers and I wanted to see this property be served and given its highest and best purpose,” she said.

One of the ways she did that was by joining the Roaring Fork Farmers Group. It’s a coalition of farmers in the valley that meets once a month at a member’s farm to share experiences and work together to improve food systems in the valley.

“I just kept on asking, like, ‘Hey, does anyone want to grow vegetables and have a greenhouse?’ A lot of people were saying ‘we just can’t get land, we can’t get land.’ And here I was. I was like ‘here it is,’” said Merrill.

Merrill connected with young farmer Erin Cuseo. Cuseo leased an acre on the ranch this year and launched Erin’s Acres, a local Community Supported Agriculture share, which provides residents who sign up for it with high quality fresh produce on a weekly basis. Erin’s Acres also has a presence as the Basalt and Carbondale farmers markets.

Erin Cuseo in her one-acre plot of land on Merrill's Family Farm.
Credit Matt Ferro

“There’s a lot of young, really motivated people growing food here, and showing the communities that it works. Just come to the market, buy the food, support us. You know, we aren’t getting rich doing it, but we are happy to do it,” Erin sid. “And, you know, bringing more food into the community is a goal for all of us.”

Harper Kaufman, 25, started Two Roots Farm with her business partner, Christian La Bar, after both of them spent a couple of years working at Rock Bottom Ranch by ACES.

Harper got interested in farming after studying climate change in college. She said learning how  carbon emissions are hurting our environment was a depressing subject to study.

“But the one beam of hope was when I learned about agriculture and how there’s a way to farm that actually is one of the greatest and cheapest ways to sequester carbon, which is soil improvement and working with building topsoil,” Harper said.

Harper founded the Roaring Fork Farmers group a year and a half ago. It’s also a place where they can talk about bigger policies that affect them.

“When you’re farming you have a lot of things going on. There’s not necessarily time to pay attention to what bureaucrats are talking about or what bills are passing, but it is important because it really does change the way that your farm business can run,” Harper said. “There’s a lot of programs out there that can actually help us if we know about them.”

The group can also help with national campaigns through their partnership with the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, which advocates for ranchers in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, as well as the National Young Farmers Coalition that supports them nationwide.

Roaring Fork Farmers vice president Jimmy Dula, who’s also a young rancher and entrepreneur in the valley, said one of the most pressing national issues is passing the Young Farmers Success Act, which would allow anyone in the profession to apply for the Public Service Employee Loan Forgiveness Program. It’s a federal program that allows those in certain service professions to be relinquished of their financial loans after roughly a decade of consistent payments.

“If you don’t have farmers then you don’t have food so to encourage more young people to get into farming, we would like to be included on the list,” Jimmy said.

The bill was introduced to the House of Representatives in summer 2015, but still has a ways to go.

Local farmers are working to support the success of that bill because, even though there are many young people interested in agriculture, they think there needs to be more of them.

“There’s a lot of need here for local food and, as exciting as it is to see young people getting into it, I think there is so much more that needs to be done,” Harper said. “There’s so much more food that could be grown here.”